Judi Evans - Head of the Family Department, St Johns Chambers, Bristol on the first ever session of the Bristol Pro Bono Family Scheme.
Last week was National Pro Bono week, and it coincided with the launch of the Bristol pro bono Family Scheme. I'd like to say it was a perfectly orchestrated plan, but in truth, the pro bono scheme took a long time to set up (over a year), and so it was rather by accident than design that the launch on the 5th November fell within National Pro Bono Week.
How was it? Only time and feedback will tell I guess.
Will it help LiPs who cannot afford legal advice, to summon the courage to enter a Court room without a lawyer, and give them some sort of road map as to where they and their children need to be headed, along with a small degree of realism? I hope so.
Will this free 30 minutes enable LiPs to conduct a contested hearing? address legal issues? cross-examine and make submissions? No, a resounding No from me. A free 30 mins legal help couldn't possibly prepare a person for the complexities of litigation. If that was the case, what on earth have we all been doing spending years of our time reading Law and doing Bar Finals? Mastering law and procedure, and different terminology, on top of managing heightened emotions about your child is a big ask for a LiP. Some would say its impossible.
So, what does the scheme involve?
The scheme runs every Thursday from 10 - 4pm. There are 7 appointment slots, with 15 minutes break in between. Its not a 'children day' for 1st appointments, so people wanting advice are not waiting to go in to Court. The advice does not include representation in Court. The commitment from lawyers prepared to volunteer will be to offer 1 day a year to the scheme.
Anyone wanting 30 mins free legal advice needs to book a slot through the PSU. The PSU then send the booking form to the 'duty lawyer' on a Tuesday to conflict check the names. The booking form contains a summary of the issues.
And so, I put my name down to do Thursday 5th November, which happened to be the first ever session. Then a funny thing happened. Life got in the way. Life that involves paying the mortgage and having a responsibility to others who need my help every bit as much.
A private law case for a client I had represented on a number of occasions previously, was listed at 2pm for directions on the same day. Should I swap with someone else on the pro bono rota? cause inconvenience and confusion with a risk that the same thing will happen again? Should I return the afternoon case? What about my poor client, who needed continuity? I knew the history. It wasn't fair to let that person down.
In the end it was simplest to do both, starting earlier at 9.30, and doing 5 free advice slots instead of 7. Finishing just after 1pm, and then doing my afternoon's case.
And that's the point with Pro bono. It will never be a substitute for properly funded legal advice and representation, those of us who volunteer will do our best. But you cant run a justice system on the good will of people who have other commitments to fulfill. Its the tiniest droplet of help in an ocean of need.
Following the introduction of LASPO the number of applications for private law orders at the Bristol CJC fell by about 40%. I understand there has been an increase in applications by about 15% this year ... will the pro bono scheme make a difference? Will it enable more people to feel confident enough to seek help?
So, what was it like last Thursday? What of the people I met? Obviously I cant give too many details, these things are confidential, but what was interesting was that all who attended (apart from one) were contemplating litigation, but worried about doing so. Care worn, confused, and highly anxious even desperate is how I would describe them. "Its taking over my life, and it hasn't even started" said one young woman, as she tried to soothe her small infant to sleep and listen to me and make notes.
And so, I talked, and answered questions about mediation, procedure, s.1 of the Children Act 1989, how to address a Judge, confirmed they could be cross-examined by their ex partner, discussed why we put the child's welfare at the centre of the case. Made referrals in one complex matter to the Bar Pro Bono Unit, referred people to the Bristol familycourtinfo.org.uk website, encouraged people to think through what they thought was best for their child, and to look at it from the other parents point of view. Even in one case handing out the duty rota list to a person who wanted to pay for legal advice before each hearing but to self represent at Court. Is this unbundled services? (under the scheme we can subsequently act for those we meet, provided we give that person a copy of the duty rota, to draw attention to other lawyers on the list).
And so, whilst I understand the (legitimate) point of view of those who say that the duty scheme is helping /colluding with legal aid cuts, I cant agree with it. The scheme is never, ever, going to replace proper state funded help, given to people who need it, in a timely manner, for the sake of our next generation. At best, I hope the scheme will operate so as to encourage/empower people to take the first steps to seeking legal redress though the Courts as an option of last resort.